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On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response

Morris Berman may not have been the first person to offer simultaneous commentary on American culture and Fahrenheit 451 by observing that the former has basically transformed itself into the dystopian society depicted by the latter. Many people have noted in the decades since Fahrenheit was first published in 1953 that things have been moving eerily and strikingly in the direction Bradbury foresaw (or rather, the direction he tried to forestall; “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he famously said in a 2003 interview. “I was trying to prevent it.”) But it was Berman who most forcefully affected me with this line of thought when he laid it out in The Twilight of American Culture:

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data [on the collapse of American intelligence] suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year

. . . [T]he society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead in video entertainment, a kind of “electronic Zen,” in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment counts . . . [The novel] is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of direct censorship of books — rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as it turns out, because most people don’t read anymore — most of the features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or perhaps no more than twenty years away. [1]

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The Fruits of Dystopia (SHORT FILM)

The present cultural prominence and popularity of dystopian fiction and film, including the newly minted subgenre of young adult dystopian novels (c.f. The Hunger Games), underscores the fact that we’re living in what can reasonably be characterized as dystopian times. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, we’re living in a real-world manifestation of an anti-utopia, a situation in which a society deems itself a utopia when in fact it’s a nightmare.  Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World are only two of the most familiar examples of this theme in English-language literature.

They’re also two of the works quoted in “The Fruits of Dystopia,” a short film by Cyrus Sutton, Creative Director at California-based Korduroy.TV,”a website spreading digital Aloha. Through video how-to’s, short films, rants and interviews we are creating a new platform for independent surf culture — a place where ideas can be shared that respect self-sufficiency, craftsmanship, and a surfing experience of our own design.”

So what, you ask, is the link between this expressed aim and the theme of dystopia? The film’s short description draws the connection in pithy fashion:

“The Fruits of Dystopia” is a short film about having fun in a less than perfect world. Cyrus Sutton explores an escape from modern trappings through excerpts from classic dystopian novels “1984,” “A Brave New World” [sic] and “Fahrenheit 451.”

In other words, the point — apparently — is to share several darkly dystopian takes on the state of human life and society, and, while basically agreeing with them, to show where and how pleasure and joy can still be found in the midst of such a situation. What’s even more interesting than this inherently interesting premise is that in Sutton’s hands it actually works. The film is rather hypnotic. Watch it and see for yourself.

Also be advised that in addition to Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, there’s another writer whose words show up: Alan Watts. “The Fruits of Dystopia” contains abridged portions of an early 1970s radio talk by Watts in which he acknowledged and explored his very deep debt to Jung. Here’s a passage from the talk’s complete transcript, encompassing some of what you’ll hear in the film. It makes for a fine epigraph:

[Jung was] trying to heal this insanity from which our culture in particular has suffered, of thinking that a human being becomes hale, healthy, and holy by being divided against himself in inner conflict, paralleling the conception of a cosmic conflict between an absolute good and an absolute evil which cannot be reduced to any prior and underlying unity. In other words, our rage, and our very proper rage, against evil things which occur in this world must not overstep itself, for if we require as a justification for our rage a fundamental and metaphysical division between good and evil, we have an insane and, in a certain sense, schizophrenic universe, of which no sense whatsoever can be made.

Recommended Reading 12

This week’s links and readings add up to an exceptionally rich and varied smorgasbord. Topics include: planetary environmental Armageddon plus other modes of doom, along with the American psychology of denial regarding the true direness of our present situation; the authentic rise of an American totalitarian state along the lines of Nuremberg; the egregiously overlooked (by formal policymakers and pundits) role of religion as a causative and formative factor in world affairs; Facebook’s Promethean desire to reshape the world and suck up all of its money with our collective personal data; the manipulation of our neurochemical responses by modern technology and advertising to induce maximum addiction; our perpetual state of chronic enslavement to clock time; a call to end the insanity of “maximum productivity” and build a more human and humane economy; a blessedly clear-sighted graduation speech that tells kids they’re not at all special; a defense of the value — not just aesthetic but political — of formally correct English; examinations of the cultural influences on Prometheus, the American gothic legacy of Ray Bradbury, and the exquisite horror of fairy tales; and a wonderful explanation of why reading Robert Anton Wilson is actually good for you.

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Recommended Reading 11

This week’s reading covers: social, political, economic, and cultural craziness and breakdown in America and Europe; a dystopian view of smartphones; an official CDC denial of a zombie holocaust in the wake of horrific incidents flooding the American media; the possible action of quantum effects in the macro-world; a cogent criticism of scientistic materialism in light of psychedelic experience and the mystery of consciousness; stories about and interviews with several leading figures in the new philosophy-spirituality-consciousness movement; a deep look at the economic imperialism of Amazon and the future of reading; thoughts from C.S. Lewis on why it’s always important to read old books along with new ones; and thoughts on the death of Ray Bradbury.

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A world without Ray Bradbury

Ray Douglas Bradbury, photo by NASA ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ray Douglas Bradbury, photo by NASA ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was stunned when the news of Ray Bradbury’s death broke today. Yes, he was a very old man who suffered from declining health, a man who obviously stood near the end of his life. But that’s immaterial to my emotional reaction. When I saw the first headline about his passing creep into my Twitter feeds, I felt almost literally thunderstruck. Then came the flood of additional media coverage of Bradbury’s passing. See, for instance, the write-ups in The New York Times, USA Today, CBS News, The Washington Post, Forbes, and the Guardian. In celebration of Bradbury’s life and legacy, John Scalzi has gone and made his introduction to the Subterranean Press edition of The Martian Chronicles freely available online; see “Meeting the Wizard.” The New Yorker has given free access to Bradbury’s contribution to its recent science fiction issue, an essay titled “Take Me Home.” My favorite offering so far may be David Brin’s elegy “Ray Bradbury, American Optimist,” published at Salon and bearing the teaser line “The science-fiction icon transformed the genre, but behind dystopian stories was real hope for the future.”

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Recommended Reading 9

This week’s recommended articles, essays, and blog posts cover: various possible modes of doom that await us (or that are facing us right now), including climate change, economic collapse, and some other usual suspects; the hijacking of global culture by money and its possibly psychopathic servants; the historical role of alchemy in giving birth to our modern-day economic system driven by credit-based currency; a philosophy professor who has taken it on himself to publicize the anti-technological cultural critique of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, since in many ways these critiques may be pointedly on-target; an essay from no less authoritative a source than MIT Tech Review explaining why Facebook is not the new Google but the new AOL, and why it may collapse and bring down much of the rest of the Web with it; a 2008 report from The Wall Street Journal about one rather shocking way (in my opinion, at least) that American megachurches have begun to exploit corporate marketing tactics; and excellent essays (plus a video) about the life, thought, and work of Philip K. Dick, Whitley Strieber, and Ray Bradbury.

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Questions about the impact of extraterrestrials on religious belief are not new

A new (Oct. 2) article at reports that theologians speaking at the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year-Starship Symposium have raised questions about the possible impacts on religion, and especially on Christianity, if the existence of extraterrestrial life is ever confirmed. The symposium itself was a public event held this past weekend (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) in Orlando, Florida, for a purpose that’s worth quoting:

 The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight. senior writer Clara Moskowitz attended the event and issued detailed descriptions of its proceedings, including the above-mentioned article, which reports on a presentation given by philosophy professor Christian Weidemann of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum about the meaning of ETs for religion in general and Christianity in particular:

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Ray Bradbury and Mike Medavoy (producer of BLACK SWAN and SHUTTER ISLAND) adapting ‘Dandelion Wine’ for the screen

This is rather exhilarating news to accompany Ray Bradbury’s imminent birthday (August 22). It also coincides nicely with the the fact that I’ve been listening to a truly outstanding two-hour audio dramatization of his Something Wicked This Comes over the past couple of days (and have been finding that it sharply intensifies my already intense longing for the advent of autumn here in apocalyptically hot and drought-ridden Central Texas).

Ray Bradbury is joining forces with Phoenix Pictures’ Mike Medavoy to produce a film version of the author’s semi-autobiographical 1957 novel Dandelion Wine…Bradbury, who turns 91 on Monday, said, ‘This is the best birthday gift I could ask for. Today, I have been reborn! Dandelion Wine is my most deeply personal work and brings back memories of sheer joy as well as terror. This is the story of me as a young boy and the magic of an unforgettable summer which still holds a mystical power over me.'” (Full story — just a short stub, really — at The Hollywood Reporter.)

Note: For more about Bradbury’s signature evocation of an intensely autumnal-magical mood, see the piece I published about him last October at SF Signal: “The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury.” My very young column over there was disrupted by the onset of the inward-turning that led me to withdraw from the Web this past January through May. I’m presently looking toward resurrecting that project.

My new column about religion and philosophy in fantasy, SF, and horror

This month I started writing a new column for SF Signal, the massively popular blog about fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The title is Stained Glass Gothic, and the column is devoted to exploring the mutual meanings and implications of fantasy, horror, science fiction, religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I think it’ll be of considerable interest to those who have enjoyed my writings about these things over the past four years here at The Teeming Brain, especially since I’m taking it in a direction that will expand my focus from mainly horror to the realm of speculative fiction and film in general, which has always been a passion of mine.

Today the third installment was published. Here’s a rundown, with excerpts, of all the entries so far, beginning with the inaugural one. Click the titles to be taken to the actual columns.

1. Stained Glass Gothic: Dark Light through Rainbow Panes (October 7, 2010)

Stained Glass Gothic will be all about recognizing, considering, and enjoying the religious and spiritual side of the speculative genres. Have you noticed that questions of religious and/or philosophical meaning crop up everywhere you look in popular speculative fiction and film? Have you noticed that these genres have been absolutely driven by major works that are explicitly about religious or spiritual themes?

The Exorcist was instrumental in launching the late 20th century horror fiction boom (or in laying the foundation for Stephen King and Peter Straub to launch it). Its cinematic adaptation was instrumental in launching the modern-day blockbuster movie (or in laying the foundation for Jaws to launch it). Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick — to name only four relevant SF authors out of many — were eaten up with questions of religion’s role and future. They laced their work from top to bottom with personal philosophical-spiritual questions about human identity and destiny. Tolkien and Lewis, as we all know, embedded Christian themes throughout their most famous works. Anne Rice eventually brought Lestat to the point of meeting the devil and drinking the crucified Christ’s blood — soon after which she abandoned vampires and reclaimed her childhood Roman Catholic Christianity (and then, most recently, abandoned and repudiated the institutional church in favor of a more free-form Christian religiosity). Stephanie Meyer built Twilight around an explicitly Genesis-oriented theme embodied in the novel’s famous cover image. Lovecraft was gripped by overarching questions and speculations about the (non)meaning of the cosmos, and he created a fictional universe populated by extradimensional and extraterrestrial monster gods — even as he went on and on (and on) in his personal correspondence about his awesome longing for a spiritual-type experience of transcendent beauty and ultimate liberation from the galling prison of space-time.

And so on.

What does it all mean? That’s precisely what we’ll be talking about. Welcome to Stained Glass Gothic.

2. Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing (October 28, 2010)

The archetypal mood that I and millions of other people have come to associate with autumn in general and October in particular touches on a peculiar emotional/spiritual upwelling that’s central to the concerns of fantasy and horror, and that I first began consciously experiencing as an early adolescent.

It makes itself known as a peculiar longing of an especially poignant and piercing sort.

….If C.S. Lewis and Colin Wilson are right (contra H.P. Lovecraft) — and many years of experiential and intellectual engagement in philosophical, religious, and spiritual explorations leave me, at least, with no doubt that they are — then this effect isn’t just a private emotional experience that has no meaning beyond the feeling of it, but a genuine window on a wider reality than most of usually recognize in our workaday mode. It literally expands our personal horizon. In other words, and in short, it’s possible to argue without hyperbole or silliness that the greatest works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction serve as religious or spiritual texts — not only, not even primarily, in terms of their specific content, but in terms of the potent effect they have on our outlook (and inlook), simply because they’re aimed at inflaming what Wilson called “Faculty X” and expanding the domain of our imaginings.

3. The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury (October 29, 2010)

Bradbury is a master at both arousing and confirming this experience of heightened inner intensity. My first readings of The October Country, The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes as an early adolescent left a permanent mark on me, both intellectually and emotionally. More than just the sum of their parts, his books and stories conveyed to me then, and convey to me now, an entire vision of the world in which darkness and light both intensify to new heights and depths of vividness, and all the daily details of life assume a kind of mythic numinosity. Which is to say that his work exemplified then, and still exemplifies now, what I take to be the deep raison d’être of fantasy and horror.

….Maybe this is why I find that in his case, I really don’t want to think of the longing as sehnsucht. It’s a wonderful word, but I feel that the version of the experience he arouses deserves it own special name. So I hereby coin “the October Mystique” as the preferred term for referring to Bradbury’s signature inflection on this crucial emotional-affective experience of longing-and-terror that’s so very central to the speculative genres. In his hands, it serves as a kind of spiritual solvent that he’s been using for over six decades to cleanse our inner eye.

Jimmy Webb says Ray Bradbury and SF taught him how to write beautiful lyrics

Jimmy Webb, photographed some years ago

How very unexpected, and how absolutely fascinating: songwriter Jimmy Webb, who’s responsible for a boatload of modern pop classics (and much more; he hates being branded as a “middle-of-the-road pop-music writer”), is a deep-thinking science fiction fan who says he learned a lot of his lyric-writing panache from Ray Bradbury.

I’ve long felt like I almost know Webb personally, since I worked for Glen Campbell in the 1990s, and of course Webb wrote several of Glen’s signature songs: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and — one known more to fans of contemporary Christian music — “The Four Horsemen.” I spent three years of my life directing the video crew at Glen’s Branson theater for two daily performances, six days a week, during which all of those songs were sung. Glen also performed Webb’s “MacArthur Park” sometimes (a song I truly love, cynical critics be damned; see the interview’s intro for an account of how it harmed Webb’s career). So I had Jimmy Webb on the brain all the time, and it was most pleasant, because the music is simply brilliant.

And now in an interview for A.V. Club from 10 days ago, I see Webb explaining that our mutual sensibilities cross over in literary ways as well. And he also works in a critique of the modern American education system. Wonderful!

Check out the following excerpt, and then go and read the whole interview, since he’s a fascinating guy.

AVC: Speaking of unexpected influences, your song “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” takes its title from a novel by science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Was he a big influence on you?

JIMMY WEBB: All science-fiction writers were. They were kind of my substitute for a truly broad-based humanitarian curriculum, because, as you know or as you do not know, there is a textbook problem, a kind of deliberately slowed-down and de-sophisticated content issue with textbooks. All the textbooks are printed in Texas. Texas. Textbook. Is there anything to that? I don’t know. But a lot of people aren’t happy with these textbooks. The kind of textbooks I grew up with would, to put it mildly, shade the truth on some issues like why the Civil War was fought, and things like that.

AVC: You mean the War Of Northern Aggression, of course.

JW: Yeah, exactly. I was innately suspicious of the education I was receiving right up to my last year of school in Colton, California. I thought the whole thing was kind of a joke. I know why kids just go nuts and say “Screw this. I ain’t going to do this anymore. I can never use this information in my life. It’s just not telling me anything.” I think there are people who would be more entertained and interested in a more complex curriculum. They would be more comfortable on a college level, on a freshman college level, than where they are, particularly in the intellectual subjects—philosophy, religion, and those areas, where in textbooks today, you have a smudgy line between creationism and science. These are important issues, because this is the groundwork for your whole life. This is the way you’re going to look at your world and at the people who live in your world. This man that’s riding next to me on the train: Is he descended from chimpanzees or not? There’s a devaluation of our educational system, because we dodge some of the important issues instead of meeting them head-on. That will not make big fans for me out there, certainly. But again, that’s me. I don’t brand. I just call it like I see it.

AVC: So science fiction was a way of broadening your horizons?

JW: It was a way of really stepping into a new curriculum, and it was full of imagination and truth and science, and science as religion, and in the work of Heinlein, the truth about politics. Probably the prettiest writer of all those guys was Ray Bradbury, who I really learned a lot from about writing beautiful prose, choosing words. I would sometimes find words and go, “Oh, that’s a lovely word. I just don’t have a clue what it means,” and I’d get out my dictionary. So really, science fiction provided an impetus and an inspiration to get into the thesaurus and look at all these different meanings and similarities between words, and then to fall in love with the word game, as my friend Artie Garfunkel might put it, which is the greatest game of all. To me, that’s what school should be about. So science fiction was really my way of circumventing that.

Interview: Jimmy Webb, A.V. Club, September 3, 2010